I am an unabashed Language Freak. Word Freak. Sentence Freak. Grammar and Punctuation Freak. I am deeply in love with what William Golding called “that massive instrument” the English language. For me putting words down on paper is like playing a finely tuned piano. No wrong notes, please! My instrument is too precious to misuse.
But the question is: Is there even such a thing as a wrong note? That is, is this judgment a kind of class and cultural elitism that unfairly excludes the spectrum of dialect, slang, subcultural and transnational usage that is today’s no-no and tomorrow’s accepted usage? What we think of as “rules,” after all, are the provisional, after-the-fact signposts of a collective usage that moves forward in slow, mysterious, and unpredictable ways.
English in our time was the language of a Western imperial conqueror (Great Britain) for three centuries. We speak English in North America today because it was the language of British colonizers who prevailed over the French and Spanish colonizers as well as over the speakers of the cornucopia of languages spoken by the first settlers of this continent. The rest of the world speaks English as a language of commerce and science partly as Great Britain’s postcolonial residue and partly because the last century’s Western economic and technological conqueror (the United States) has further imposed it on them.
Within our own country, what is called Standard Written English has also served as a class and ethnic marker. In the years I lived in Hawaii, the debate arose over the acceptability of pidgin English, a rich mixture of Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean words embedded in an English base that was stripped stripped of definite articles. (Pidgin in various forms is still found all over the Pacific as the lingua franca language of the old-time ship-based trading economy. The word pidgin derives from English business). In the same way, “ebonics” became a rallying cry on the U.S. mainland during the 1980s for alternative usage against the primacy of Standard Written English.
Historically, though, the English language embodies the conditions of colonizer and colonized in almost equal portions. It is one of, if not the most, polyglot, mongrel, colonized languages in the entire world.
Thousands of years ago, the country we call England was the prone invadee of an almost endless series of foreign interlopers. While it was still connected to the land mass of Europe, various tribes from the Iberian peninsula strolled over and set up shop. They were steamrollered in turn by the ruthless Celts (now viewed romantically as the original indigenous people of the British Isles), who were subjugated by the Romans, who pulled out after four centuries or so in the face of the Angles and the Saxons, Germanic colonizers who gave the island its present name, England, or Angle-Land, and whose language was the basis of we now call English. In the meantime, the country was converted to Christianity, opening the door to a flood of Latin-speaking and -writing clerics from the Continent. Next came those Vikings from Scandinavia doing their pillaging and burning thing.
All these invaders used the evolving English language (whose core structure was Germanic) like a fast food trash bin to dump their own grammar and vocabularies into. (From the Vikings, for instance, English got the useful personal pronouns he, she, it, her, his, and their plus the ability to make a plural noun simply by adding an s.)
Then (drumroll) came the year 1066, when William the Conqueror, a French-speaking ruler of Scandinavian descent whose base was Normandy on the coast of France, sailed over to England and made the country his own. With William came a sizeable contingent of Norman (meaning “Northmen”) noblemen whom he set up in fiefdoms all over the country. For the next five hundred years, the aristocracy spoke Norman French, the language of the conquerors, the peasants spoke English, and Latin was the official written language for all legal documents and ecclesiastical writing. Straight through the Renaissance, the heavily colonized English language proceeded to soak up French, Latin, and Greek words in a way absolutely unprecedented in any other language.
That is why, to this day, our English-language vocabulary of science, mathematics, law, and other theoretical and intellectual disciplines comes predominantly from Latin and Greek: words like astronomy, philosophy, psychology, intuition, reflection, cognition were coined in the Renaissance from Latin roots. So are mechanical things: automobile, engine (same root as ingenious), machine, factory. The recently coined computer comes from computation, Latin via French, meaning settling or reckoning (putare) together (com). From Greek, English got the language of consciousness and the Christian scriptures. From Arabic, via Spain, we got essential words such as algebra, algorithm, cotton, and others.
Back to Standard Written English. Like many millions of us here whose ancestors came from every imaginable corner of the world, I am a native speaker of English. My family is mostly of European descent, but I don’t have an Ivy League background. I went to a public high school and two state universities. All my writing life, however, I have been camped out in the front yard of Standard Written English as a dedicated devotee of what I call sophisticated, not elitist, style. What I aspire to in my own writing reflects the standards of the English-language literary works I have most loved. It is not the same list of authors that other writers I admire may have, but I note that their standards look very much like mine in practice.
Sophisticated writers of all backgrounds and all writing styles seem to share an unspoken agreement about what a good sentence sounds like. Whether it is long or short, jagged or graceful, ornate or simple, a good sentence has a detectable, intentional ring and rhythm to it. These writers have acquired that indefinable skill known as an ear for language, and they have put enormous effort into honing it over a lifetime of writing. This dedication gives their sentences a structural elegance that every sensitive reader resonates with. And this structural elegance (along with its faithful enabler grammar) is really all the vague label Standard Written English is meant to point to.
I call this kind of writing style sophisticated because even when it breaks with convention, such a style grows out of deep knowledge of received usage, not ignorance of it. Powered both by instinct and conscious knowledge, sophisticated writers are in full control of their language and they use it, just as a keyboardist does, to create highly specific effects.
This is why, speaking for myself, I don’t see that shapeshifting entity known as Standard Written English as a false idol to be overthrown or a class or cultural prison to be sprung out of. I think of it actually as an enormous and very malleable hunk of Play-Do to be shaped to my own needs even as I honor its conventions in this moment.
“In this moment” says it all if you look at the big picture. The English language is roughly fifteen hundred years old. But what about fifteen hundred years from now? Who will have conquered whom by then? Will my beloved magpie native tongue still even be spoken? Will it be a dead written language, the way Latin is now? Will it exist in any form? We always think the present moment of our time is forever, and it isn’t. It is only a moment. Many more languages have been lost, after all, than survive. The great wheel of history keeps on turning. Carpe diem.
*Note: Whom still sounds like best word here, direct object of who.